Carbon Offsets Are No Joke
John Oliver recently aimed his signature blend of wit, insight, and profanity directly at carbon offsets on an episode of his Emmy-winning (and often hilarious) HBO show, Last Week Tonight. The segment itself was fairly typical of what you normally see from Oliver, using a mix of humor, data, and indignation to help him inform, educate, and entertain his audience. And much like most of the subjects that Oliver typically focuses his energies on, carbon offsets as a whole didn’t come across in the most flattering light.
He was spot on to call out recent investigations into efficacy of some less than quality forest protection projects, and he’ll hear no argument from us on his statement that “We cannot offset our way out of climate change.”
We agree. Offsets alone aren’t going to solve climate change, but discounting their efficacy entirely is just as incorrect as taking all carbon offsets at face value. Not all carbon offsets were created equally, but that doesn’t mean none of them matter. Here’s why.
“Now or never.”
According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that’s the timeframe for taking action and staving off some of the worst impacts of climate change. Not later this month, not later this year, not later this decade — the time for action is now.
While these kinds of dire, urgent warnings about the state of our planet’s climate have happened in the past, the moment we currently find ourselves in is a little different. For the first time, there are presently not only a wide range of actual, verifiable decarbonization solutions available, but people’s willingness to step up and take action for the planet has also never been higher. When a prime time TV program devotes over twenty-three minutes of a segment to the concept of “Additionality,” something that would have been unthinkable just a couple years ago — it’s a good anecdotal indication that the urgency of people’s alarm and concern for the climate is higher than it’s ever been.
And those rising levels of alarm and concern are also supported with data. With 71% of Americans concerned that global warming will harm future generations, 80% claiming they’d make changes to the way they live if it would help reduce the impact of climate change, and nearly 70% of Americans supporting taking steps to make our country carbon neutral by 2050, there’s no doubt that people are ready and willing to work towards a solution. So what’s stopping us?
Part of the problem is that climate change is not a straightforward or simple issue, and to assume that something so multifaceted will have a single, all-encompassing solution is to set yourself up for a lot of disappointment, and not a lot of actual positive impact. The saying “For every problem, there’s a solution” simply isn’t applicable here.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t to say that people aren’t generally in agreement about what the overall goal here is. With the exception of a few particularly concerning corners of the internet with naysayers, it’s generally agreed upon that the number one thing we need to do to make an impact on climate change is to collectively reduce our global carbon emissions — but how exactly we make those reductions, how we measure their efficacy, and what happens after that is where general consensus dramatically splinters.
Do we focus on reducing emissions? Do we prioritize protecting existing ecosystems? Do we protect the most vulnerable among us from climate change’s negative impacts? Do we leverage quality carbon offsets to help people offset what they can’t reduce? Do we focus on renewable energy? Increasing climate funding and green-friendly infrastructure improvements?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding YES. Those are all things we can do, and they are all things we should do.
The world needs to reduce emissions fast to keep within 1.5˚C, and science tells us that cutting global emissions 50% by 2030 is what it will take to get us to net zero by 2050. With goals this urgently ambitious, there’s simply no time to do anything other than everything we can do. The actions and approach recommended by the IPCC underline the fact that when it comes to climate solutions, we don’t live in an either/or world anymore. We’re in a yes/and world now. Yes, individuals and businesses should make every effort to reduce their carbon footprint, AND they should offset what they can’t reduce through the use of high quality carbon offsets. Yes, we should explore innovative new technologies to help reduce emissions AND rely on existing, verified emissions reduction methods like improved land management and reforestation that can make an impact right now. Yes, we should protect the planet AND we should simultaneously work to protect its people as well.
Right now, every tonne matters. We should be leveraging every single tool in our collective toolbox to reduce carbon emissions, decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, and protect pristine parts of our planet’s ecosystem from development. And right now, one of the best tools we have for accomplishing these goals is high quality carbon projects, funded through carbon offsets.
Fighting climate change is not cheap. It costs money to save a forest, provide solar panels to underprivileged villages, sustainably manage land, install clean cookstoves, prevent forest degradation, or capture methane emissions. So far, funding has not been forthcoming from governments and philanthropic efforts are relatively small in the face of such a massive problem. It is essential to incentivize and mobilize the private market if we are to solve this problem.
Unfortunately many leading voices in the climate fight are being silenced by a few of those uneducated on climate, carbon offsets, and the use of private finance to drive climate action. Even when actual tangible progress is made thanks to carbon projects, naysayers reinforce a black and white worldview, where all offsets are inherently bad. This has created scenarios where companies that are genuinely taking action on climate are being called out for inaction or “greenwashing” when in reality, they are leading the way. We don’t hear much about the companies that are doing nothing!
Quality carbon projects, funded by the sale of carbon offsets can make a real impact on the planet and its people. Carbon credits efficiently deliver private sector funding to those in need, now, and when done correctly, verifiably reduce emissions entering our atmosphere. What happens if this funding dries up? Forests disappear. Endangered species are lost. Communities lose valuable resources. We all lose a valuable tool in the fight against climate change. With global climate leaders preparing to assemble in a few weeks at Egypt’s COP27 event in Egypt, it’s time to focus on progress, not spreading false narratives. It’s time to embrace effective solutions. It’s time to trust the science of emission reductions, not talking points. It’s time for us all to come together and take action for the planet’s future.
And as the IPCC report makes abundantly clear, there is no better time, or much time left, to leverage the power of collective action — which is something we think all of us, even John Oliver, can agree on.
— Dee Lawrence, Co-Founder and Director, Cool Effect